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Feedback Madagascar: Putting the Yum in Yam

For nearly thirty years, Feedback Madagascar has worked in the remote forest areas in southeast Madagascar to help people live sustainably, protect biodiversity and tackle climate change. A clear priority for the charity has been crop diversification however this is not as easy as it sounds. I talked to Jamie Spencer, CEO and founder of Feedback Madagascar to get a deeper insight.

Madagascar is the 4th poorest country in the world and Feedback Madagascar works with some of the poorest people in the country, subsistence farmers. Madagascar has been one of the first victims of climate change, with droughts and typhoons hitting much of the island.

‘Conservation and Development hand in hand’

Feedback has managed to squeeze its comprehensive aims into this short slogan, but their work couldn't be more complicated. This rather vague and all-encompassing phrase may not trigger the same, immediate satisfaction as Feedback’s supporting partner Mary's Meals; a “simple solution to world hunger” but the charity’s commitment to all of Malagasy society means that they will always have a sustainable impact.

Feedback prioritises both the environment and people, but really, as Jamie told me, everything is “a people thing” nowadays. As a result, Feedback tends to concentrate on meeting the people’s needs which often translates into preserving the forest; they just need to ensure that this link is secured. Once improvements start to emerge, the cycle “runs itself”. The charity's success is also largely due to a deep understanding of the Malagasy people. Crucially, of Feedback’s 200 staff, 199 are Malagasy and feedback personnel are now embedded into more than 545 villages on the island which facilitates community involvement, in turn ensuring long term and widespread benefits.

The Problem with Rice

A new and surprisingly exciting project on yams (I know... Yams… exciting?) illustrates the Feedback approach perfectly and may make sense of this skeleton or criteria for charitable success.

2000 years ago the Malagasy people migrated from Indonesia, bringing with them an absolute adoration for rice which has survived into the present day. In Malagasy the word ‘to eat a meal’ literally translates into ‘to consume rice’ and along with their vocabulary, the Malagasy calendar is locked into rice production. A favourite topic of conversation is the progress of the rice shoots in the fields; their main economic unit of measurement is the ‘Kapoks’ which is an empty milk tin of rice and it will be the day when a Malagasy admits that anything else could taste better.

However, over the millennia they have also preserved slash and burn farming in order to keep on bringing in the harvests. This technique involves clearing areas of rainforest through slashing down trees and vegetation, often home to rare and endemic species. The biomass is then burned, producing a highly fertile soil perfect for cultivation… but only in the short term. Soon, the land becomes exhausted and farmers are forced to continue their destruction of the forest elsewhere.

Not only does this mean that over 80% of the Malagasy forest has been destroyed, with the island experiencing the biggest rate of topsoil loss in the world, but that 80% of farmers continue to carry out subsistence farming. And barely at that. Land loss obviously poses an enormous issue in terms of limiting agriculture but practically, monoculture farming is completely unsustainable as rice is only available for part of the year, leaving many Malagasy to suffer from hunger in the remaining months.

Improving the Mix

Feedback Madagascar has made it a priority to diversify crop production.

By introducing and supporting the growth of periodical, nutritious crops that are easy and fast growing such as sweet potatoes, bananas and coffee, the people will be fed all year round - an immediate and obvious result. However lurking in the background, conservation is also being achieved. These plants are also chosen as they can be cultivated on the plentiful barren hillsides of Madagascar, which then reduces the need to perform slashing and burning. Everything is taken into account very carefully when Feedback initiatives such as these are started; both development and conservation must always be considered. If only the people’s needs are addressed, for example, then any improvement in forestry protection could be undermined. This is highlighted by a less tactful project initiated by a well known international conservation organisation who donated significant amounts of beans to farming families, only considering the nutritional value of the pulse and not the colossal value they held from the perspective of the villagers. The farmers immediately reacted by cutting down the forest to cultivate these beans as soon as possible, thereby undoing major conservation and the huge effort to change attitudes towards conservation at the same time.

‘Forest Potatoes’

Feedback has recently embarked on a project to take advantage of cultivating nourishing yams, but in a more gradual and successful manner. In actuality, this decision was not one of their safest but thanks to further measures taken by the charity, such as Yam festival days and employing agents to talk up the food on the ground, the vegetable has been well accepted. Wild yams indigenous to Madagascar have existed on the island for a long time, but until recently they were regarded as shameful “forest potatoes” that people only resorted to eating in times of desperation. Breaking this cultural habit might have been a barrier but luckily the tubers emerged enormous and impressive looking. Besides, on tasting them they were extremely similar to cassava which makes up a part of the traditional Malagasy diet - yams now seemed less alien.

School Lunches

Feedback also took advantage of their collaboration with Mary’s Meals to introduce Yams into the school menu every Thursday (Feedback is employed by Mary's Meals to feed 98,000 school children every day). Additionally, many school children’s yam farming parents have been offered security by making the canteen a reliable customer for yam production, which reduces the risk of economic loss, especially as there is no demand yet for the vegetables in the cities.

A Risk Worth Taking

There is still a chance that yam production may create more issues than benefits and this is something that Feedback Madagascar has not forgotten to consider. Very isolated villages rely on dealers otherwise known as ‘collectors’ as go-betweens to the rest of the island. As well as carrying out their primary role of collecting produce to be sold in the city, these people also provide small markets out of the back of their vehicles, or operate permanent stalls and their vehicles act as the only means of public transport. The fact that a small communities’ economies rely on these people would not be the main issue; however if the village has nothing to offer these collectors due to their new specialty in yam production then they may have limited access to crucial resources and facilities. So far, this has not revealed itself as a worrisome question. Even so, Feedback’s deep understanding of Malagasy society allows it to run these risks, because it will be able to solve them. More significantly, it needs to take these risks as, if not, the best solutions can never be found. For instance, it was daring to suggest that the Malagasy make a diet out of a taboo “forest potato” but against all odds, yams were a hit and are being eaten by thousands of locals every day. Yam cultivation has been adopted by 53 communities, in more than 2,300 households and as a result the lean season (when people are most likely to starve before the new rice harvest) has been shortened by approximately 25%.

By taking a sensitive and holistic approach to ameliorate living standards, both the people and the environment can benefit. Feedback Madagascar should be taken as an awesome example for never failing to follow this misleadingly simple-sounding strategy.

By Rosie D, Year 13

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